The Sussex-Lisbon library system, based out of Wisconsin, has announced that they will be doing away with the Dewey decimal system. If they go forth with these plans, they will become only the second public library system in the entire nation to do this.
They would be stepping behind the Maricopa County Library District, a library system I worked for over six months. The Maricopa County Library District has been working to do-away with the Dewey system at each of their seventeen branches since they opened the Perry branch back in 2007. In 2007, Perry was the first public library, ever, to be so bold as to get rid of the Dewey Decimal classification system.
I cringe at the very thought of another library system transitioning into a Dewey-less world.
Having worked for libraries that use and don’t use the Dewey decimal system, I cringe at the very thought of another system transitioning into a Dewey-less world.
Because while I did in fact work for the library system that is leading the way in this new“trend” and while I did in fact help countless library users find items without Dewey, I still do not understand what the hell they are thinking. (And admittedly, anything I found was by accident).
In the simplest terms, the Dewey decimal system works, and the Maricopa County Library District’s “Shelf Logic” system does not.
The Dewey decimal system works.
In the Dewey decimal system, every nonfiction book has a place. Dewey not only groups book categories together, but it goes on to group secondary categories together. And because it’s perfect, it even goes the extra step to put the sub-secondary categories all in the same place. That makes it easy for folks looking for books on a specific subject, because all of the books about the same topics are in the same place. Together. What the means, in a literal sense, is that you will find all of the animal books in the 590’s. And you’ll find all of the books about birds in the 598’s. And if you are having to write that really obscure research paper about “the misalliance order of water birds,” you will find all of those books in 598.4.
And that’s how it’s been, in every public library across this nation, as they all used the Dewey Decimal system. That is, until the Maricopa County Library District decided to go rogue.
What apparently was forgotten by the former library director of the county’s system (yes, he pushed for this change and as it started being put into practice, he wisely retired – getting out of the library business altogether) is that the Dewey decimal system has been around for 137 years. It is a system that has been tried, fixed, tried again, fixed again, and works.
The Dewey decimal system has been around for 137 years.
The county’s “Shelf Logic” system host general terms, or categories, that are then alphabetized. So you’ll find all of the animal books in the A’s. That is, unless it’s referring to a pet, then it will be in the P’s – or if it’s a mammal – then I think that’s in the M’s. And in those umbrella terms the books are again alphabetized. So that means if you’re looking for books about elephants, in the animal section, the book titled “The Big Elephant” will be in the B’s, meanwhile the book titled “Elephant’s and Everything You Need To Know About Them” will be in the E’s. In between will be books about birds, dinosaurs, eels, or really any animal book that title starts with a B, C or D.
What the Maricopa County Library District did in 2007 with the opening of the Perry branch, was create a “browsing collection” – forgoing the long held notion that a library hosts books of reference and informational material. Instead, they don’t keep books that don’t look good, are more than five years old, or, as they call it are “grumpy” (as in somewhat worn and torn from excessive use). No book in their system is supposed to go home to more than 200 people.
We don’t go to the library to have the same experience as one might have in a bookstore.
They made this change (as they explained to me during my tenure there) to be more like a bookstore. In a bookstore, you browse, and select items generally based on the cover of the book. The problem with this philosophy is that many, myself included, don’t go to the library to have the same experience as one might have in a bookstore. We go there to do research and educate ourselves. Additionally, the Maricopa County Library District forgot another key factor in making the library experience like a bookstore – bookstores have more or less gone bankrupt. I mean, Waldenbooks – better known for their sub-company, Borders, closed their doors in 2010. A New York Times article, titled “The Bookstores Last Stand” – goes on to explain why Barnes and Noble is literally getting out of the book-selling business.
Above all else, I think the Maricopa County Library District’s move to do away with the Dewey decimal system is insulting. It’s insulting to you, the library user, because they obviously believe that you aren’t intelligent enough to find books under the Dewey-system. Plus, they think that you don’t know what you’re walking into when you walk in to a library. We both know a library is not a bookstore – that’s why they have different names, and one is supported by tax dollars. We know there are librarians, and library workers, there to help — and we know we’re paying them to do exactly that.
The biggest insult I find, however, isn’t to us the library users, but rather, to the profession of libraries in general. I find doing away with the Dewey decimal system says that libraries are out of the profession of finding information.
Doing away with the Dewey decimal system says that libraries are out of the profession of finding information.
Libraries have, and should continue to raise the bar of knowledge and education. Not lower it as going Dewey-less does. There is an episode of the West Wing where the speech writers are contemplating whether or not to use a word in a speech for the President. I don’t remember what the exact word was, but it was, according to the speech writers, one that not everyone would know. As their conversation continues, Martin Sheen, playing President Bartlett, walked in and declared that they would use the harder word, because the people “can look it up.” He then went on to say that his mission was to raise the bar of education – and that’s what libraries are supposed to be doing.
I hope the Sussex-Lisbon library system rethinks their decision to follow in the county’s footsteps, before it’s too late. Once libraries give up their mission in providing information to folks, folks will stop seeking information, and we all lose.